Imagens das páginas

There are three words which may be considered to include all that relates to our subject. These are, Wit, Humour, and Fun; and though frequently confused, they are each distinct. Roughly we may affirm that wit requires a good head, humour a good heart, and fun good spirits. Wit will rise to the highest flights, and fun may sink to the lowest depths. The word wit has many significations, its original being the Angle-Saxon verb meaning to know, and thus it was formerly a synonym of wisdom; and we should not forget this sense, because the highest wit is wisdom at play. Here is a quibble on the double of the word. Perron observed to the Duke of Mantua, who said that the jester whom he retained in his service was a fellow of no wit or humour, " Your grace must pardon me, I think he has a deal of wit who can live by a trade he does not understand."

The distinction between wit and humour may be said to consist in this, that the characteristic of the latter is nature, nnd of the former art. Wit is more allied to intellect, and humour to imagination. Humour is a higher, finer, and more genial thing than wit. It is a. combination of the laughable with tenderness, sympathy, and warmheartedness. Pure wit is often ill-natured, and has a sting; but wit, sweetened by a kind, loving expression, becomes humour. Wit is usually brief, sharp, epigrammatic, and incisive, the fewer words the better; but humour, consisting more in the manner, is diffuse, and words are not spared in it. Carlyle says, "The essence of humour is sensibility, warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence;" and adds, of Jean Paul's humour, that in Richter's smile itself a touching pathos may lie hid too deep for tears." This same idea of the affinity between smiles and tears is prettily expressed by Frederick Locker: —

"I've laughed to hide the tear I shed.
As when the jester's bosom swells,
And mournfully he shakes his head,
We hear the jingle of his bells."

Wit may be considered as the distinctive feature of the French genius, and humour of the English; but to show how difficult it is to carry these distinctions out fairly, we may note that England has produced a Butler, one of the greatest of wits, and France a Moliere, one of the greatest of humourists.

Fun includes all tnose things that occasion laughter which are not included in the two former divisions. Buffoonery and

mimicry come under this heading, and it has been observed that the author of a comedy is a wit, the comic actor a humourist, and the clown a buffoon. Old jests were usually tricks, and in coarse times we find that little distinction is made between joyousness and a malicious delight in the misfortunes of others. Civilization discountenances practical jokes, and refinement is required to keep laughter within bounds. As the world grows older fun becomes less boisterous, and wit gains in point, so that we cannot agree with Cornelius O'Dowd when he says, "The day of witty people is gone by. If there be men clever enough now-a-days to say smart things, they are too clever to say them. The world we live in prefers placidity to brilliancy, and a man like Curran in our present-day society would be as unwelcome as a pyrotechnist with a pocketful of squibs." This is only a repetition of an old complaint, and its incorrectness is proved when we find the same thing said one hundred years ago. In a manuscript comedy, "In Foro," by Lady Houstone, who died near the end of the last century, one of the characters observes, " Wit is now-a-days out of fashion, people are well-bred, and talk upon a level; one does not at present find wit but in some old comedy." In spite of Mr. Lever and Lady Houstone, we believe that civilized society is specially suited for the display of refined wit. Under such conditions satire is sure to flourish, for the pen takes the place of the sword, and we know it can slay an enemy as surely as steel. This notion owes its origin in part to an error in our mental perspective, by which we bring the wit of all ajes to one focus, fancying what was really far apart to have been close together, and thus comparing things which possess no proper elements of comparison, and placing as it were, in opposition to each other the accumulated broad and well-storied tapestry of the past with the fleeting moments of our day, which are but its still accumulating fringe. Charles Lamb will not allow any great antiquity for wit, and apostrophizing candle-light says, "This is our peculiar and household planet; wanting it, what savage, unsocial nights must our ancestors have spent, wintering in caves and unillumined fastnesses! They must have lain about and grumbled at one another in the dark. What repartees could have passed, when you must have felt about for a smile, and handled a neighbour's cheek to be sure he under^toood it? .... Jokes came iu with caudles."

Undoubtedly there was but little wit or humour in the early ages of the world. The ouly laugh we hear that the Jews indulged in was that of scorn. What wit we find among the ancients was usually of a very rudimentary character, such as practical jokes, — a form of jesting now happily banished from society, and indulged in only by the lower classes, which is one of the reasons why a cultivated man can seldom laugh with the vulgar. James I. was fond of practical jokes, and of all kinds of foolery. In one of his progresses he asked how far it was to a certain town, when his attendants answered, " Six miles." Half an hour after he asked again, and was told '• Six miles and a half," at which he alighted from his coach and crept under the shoulder of his led horse, because, he said, •• I must stalk, as yonder town is shy and flies me."

Goethe said nothing is more significant of men's characters than what they find laughable, and doubtless he was correct; yet we laugh one day at what would not raise eveu a smile on another, so much depending on the state of our mind at the time. When our feelings are strung to their greatest tension we are often inclined to laugb, and we smile for the very reason that we ought not. A slight thing will upset the gravity of a congregation, and a small joke will set the House of Commons or a court of law into a roar. We often find a jest in the mouths of the dying, not from any irreverence, but from this curious symptom of the mental state.

Selden says, " Wit must grow like fingers. If it be taken from others, it is like plums stuck upon blackthorns; there they are for a while, but they come to nothing." It is true that wit will not always bear transplantation, because time and place have much to do with its success; but nevertheless we are fortunate in possessing a large quantity of jests that, as Lord Bacon said, "serve to be interlaced in continued speech." Cicero called a jest-book a salt-pit out of which you might extract salt to sprinkle where you will. The man who sets up for a wit must be careful not to make his jests follow too quickly upon each other, and should introduce flashes of dulnetis, or he will be voted a bore, and considered as bad as an ill-edited " Joe Miller." Herbert makes some judicious remarks on this point: — "Wit's an unruly engine, wildly striking

Sometimes a friend, sometimes the engineer;

Host thou the knack? pumper is not with

But if thou want it, buy it not too dear.

Many affecting wit beyonJ their power,
Have got to be a dear fool for an hour.
If thou be master guuuer, speak not all
That tbou canst speak at once, but hus-
band it,
And give men turns of speech. Do not fore-


By kvishness, thine own nnd other's wit,
As if thou mnd'st thy will. A civil guest
Will no more talk all, than eat all the

Most of the philosophers who have set to work to define mental sensations insist that laughter supposes a feeling of superiority in the laugher over the laughed at; < but they seem to overlook the great distinction between laughing at and laughing with any one. Doubtless a feeling of contempt often raises a langh, and the absurdities of men and women are a constant food for laughter; but humourists often laugh at themselves. Nothing will illustrate better the absurdity of the wholesale statement that laughter implies contempt than Charles Lamb's relation to Coleridge. He constantly laughed and joked at the preaching of the philosopher, but he reverenced his friend of fifty years, and looked up to him with childlike love. A "Westminster Reviewer" defines the cause of laughter ns the representation of objects with qualities the opposite of their own; but all incongruities do not cause laughter. Ludicrous incongruity is opposed to dignity, and this is why those who have little wisdom to fall back upon hate a laugh. Lord Bolingbroke said that gravity is the very essence of imposture; and Joe Miller is the authority for the assertion that as the gravest beast is an ass, the gravest bird is an owl, and the gravest fish is an oyster, so the gravest man is a fool. If any one is inclined to doubt Joe Miller's dictum, we can corroborate it by the authority of Plato, who, when indulging in the gaiety of his heart, used sometimes to say, "Silence, my friends! let us be wise now; here is a fool coming." Lord Chesterfield was no fool, and he disapproved of laughter; but he allowed his son to smile, for he did not advocate gravity. He considered laughter as ill-bred, not only on account of the disagreeable noi.-e, but because of the " shocking distortion of the face that it occasions!" It is happy for the world that such false notions are not now received. Some suppose that laughter is caused by novelty and surprise, and a French philosopher, in accounting for the fact that, although we are told our Lord wept, we never hear that he laughed,

suggests to us the reason Aat nothing was new to Him. Although* this is good enough as a theory, it is grounded upon a mistaken idea of laughter, for we often laugh on the recollection of a witticism. Nevertheless, surprise is a material element of laughter, although it is not confined to that emotion. It has been well observed that "the only constant effect that follows on an original and striking

who have during two centuries exhibited all the varieties of wit. Most of the popular jokes have been attributed at different times to the chief wit of his day, so that a large number of them have manyfathers. The title of Receiver-General of Waif and Stray Jokes was given to Selwyn, which proves that he made good ones of his own, because it has been said we are only inclined to lend to the rich. The

comparison is a shock of agreeable sur-1 peculiarities of some of these wits have prise; it is as if a partition-wall in our in-., been distinguished from each other. Dr.

Johnson says of Prior and Butler, " The spangles of wit which Prior could afford he knew how to polish, but he wanted the bullion of Butler. Butler pours out a negligent profusion, certain of the weight, but careless of the stamp." Home Tooke makes somewhat the same observations upon Sheridan and Curran : — " Sheridan's wit was like steel, highly polished and sharpened for display and use; Curran's

[ocr errors]

tellect was suddenly blown out; two things formerly strange ta one another

U«»n il., 1 ...! i ...... r 1 ,,... '*

as other things

have, but in all its changes and varieties It..-: -.11 remains light. ( It need not always be ludicrous or laugliable; in fact, we think it may sometimes be serious, but it must not be too heavily loaded, or it ceases to be wit. Sydney Smith rather

unfairly limits the domain of wit by giving was a mine of virgin gold, incessantly specimens which he says would be witty crumbling away from its own richness." if they were not beautiful, — such as the Charles Lamb's humour is something by description of the sandal-wood which im- itself, which cannot be cut away from its

parts an aromatic flavour to the edge of the axe that fells it. He considers that

context; and all he wrote is suffused with his own quaint character. He said of

that which conveys an idea of sublimity, I himself that he had been libelled as a perbenuty, or truth cannot be witty. We son always aiming at wit; which he told a

think he iti wrong, and believe that some of the wittiest sayings owe much to their 'wisdom. Wit is often little more than the

dull fellow that charged him with it, was at least as good as aiming atdulness.

Wit is often an unprofitable gift, for the dull people of the world look with sus

picion upon the witty man, who often

unused side of wisdom, which commonplace people do not see. Surely, Manly's

speech in Wycherley's "Plain Dealer " j makes malapropos speeches rather than contains a truth well worthy of general; lose what ho considers a wood thing, reception, wittily expressed: — "But know, Queen Elizabeth seeing Sir Edward Dyer that speaking well of all mankind is the walking in her garden called to him, worst kind of detraction, for it takes away j " What does a man think of. Sir Edward, the reputation of a few good men in the when he thinks of nothing?" referring to

«m*>lrl V«*T molrinr* nil alilro ** TtlO TT1 fl n

world by making .all alike." The man who said that Neology is the visible horizon that bounds the outlook of the popular mind, and, as.such, recedes as the pop-] man's promise." Lord Bacon, after reular mind advances," was both witty and lating this anecdote, adds, " That anger wise. Similies are favourites of the poets, makes dull men witty, but it keeps them

his work entitled," The Praise of Nothing." He, smarting under supposed neglect, answered, " He thinks, madame, of a wc~

poor." In later times Thomas Warton paid a dear price for -a joke. On one occasion a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, who was not remarkable for wisdom, whilereading the service, came to Psalm Ixir. 5, "Lord, thou knowest my simpleness." Warton, who sat below him, whispered,

and are often as witty as they are beautiful; as when dew is said to be "the tears of the earth for the departure of the sun." There are two classes of wits — the authors and the talkers; but sometimes the two characters are united in one person. The succession has been continuous from

Villiers. Duke of Buckingham, to Douglas \ " Why, that is known to everybody." * Soon Jerrold. To mention only some, there are ' afterwards the office of President became Lord Rochester, Butler, Prior, Lords Her-j vacant, and Warton was obliged to canvey and Chesterfield, Sir Charles Hanbury vass this man for the casting-vote. The Williams, George Selwyn, Sheridan, Foote, answer he received wa«, "No. I am not so Wilkes, Charles Lamb, Jekyll, Curran, simple as that neither," and Warton lost Theodore Hook, Thomas Hood, and Syd-: his election. It is curious to remark on ney Smith. This is a motley list of men the various classes that have been the


butts of witticisms. The old jest-books are full of jokes aimed against the monks, but now very few have the clergy for their subject, and those that have are mostly of a good-natured character, such as the following samples. Lord Stowell was much pressed by an anxious divine (who expected a certain living) to inform him what it was worth. "My dear friend," said he, "it is worth having." When a great outcry was made for money to build new churches, a gentleman was asked one Sunday whether he had been to church. He answered, "No, I have it on the best authority, that of the bishops, that there is no room." The clergy themselves have usually been quite equal to the task of holding their own in wit combats. What can be finer than the following anecdote of a witty archbishop. Once Dr. Whately was walking with a young officer of artillery who was allied to him in blood, when the latter propounded the following riddle, "What is the difference between a donkey and an archbishop?" Whately gave it up, and received the following reply, " The one carries his cross behind, and the other before," referring to the marks of the cross on the back of the domestic ass and on the apron of an archbishop. "Very good, indeed," laughed Whately. "And now can you tell me the difference between a donkey and a captain of artillery?" "No, indeed, I cannot," replied the officer. "There is none whatever," rejoined the .archbishop.

Lawyers and doctors are the chief objects of ridicule in the jest-books of all nation!), but they seem to have been little injured by the infliction. The jokes against medical men are legion, and they show that the generality of people do not hold a very high opinion of their art of cure, but they also prove that they are not altogether disbelieved in, or the matter would be too serious for a joke. A man is said to have been ashamed to look a physician in the face because he was in such good health; and the same idea is to be found in the following anecdote of men in a different profession. A certain canon being very ill, the bishop of his diocese had disposed of his prebend. On his recovery, he absented himself more than the usual period for visiting his diocesan. On being asked by' some friends the reasons for his conduct, he replied with great gravity that he was afraid that the bishop might be angry ,with him for not dying the year before.' ,

Wit is not always so spontaneous as it appears. "Impromptus" are often pol

lished by the midnight oil; thus Sheridan's celebrated description in the House of Commons of Dundas as one " who generally resorts to his memory for his jokes, and to his imagination for his facts," went through many changes before it catue out in its present brilliancy. The following are some of the earlier forms of witticism. "lie employs his fancy in his narrative and keeps his recollections for his wit." "When he makes his jokes you applaud the accuracy of his memory, and 'tis only when he states his facts that you admire the flights of his imagination." Sheridan at a public dinner was unexpectedly called upon to say grace, when he acquitted himself as follows, "What, no clergyman present? Thank God for all things I" This is a much-improved reading of a very old joke, but Charles Lamb attributes this version to a friend of his.

Wit is an evergreen, and jokes of great antiquity are continually appearing as new; thus what can be a more never-failing sarcasm than is contained in the following epigram : —

"Isn't Molly Fowle immortal? No.
You lye, she is; I'll prove her so.
She's fifteen now, and was, I know,
Fifteen, full fifteen years ago."

In Bacon's " Apophthegmes* we find a like anecdote. Cicero was at dinner, where there was an ancient lady, that spake of her years, and said "she was but forty years old." One that sat by Cicero rounded him in the ear, and said, " She talks of forty years old, and she is far more, out of question." Cicero answered him again, "I must believe her, for I have heard her say so any time these ten years.' We can trace the sentiment contained in the well-known lines —'

"For he who fights, and runs away,
May live to fight another day,"

to Demosthenes,' who, when he fled from the rabble and was reproached for it, said, "that he that flies might fight again."

The germ of Douglas Jerrold's joke,

"that it was better to be witty and wise

than witty and otherwise," is to be found

| in a little book of " Conceits" published

! in 1639. *' '''

In the same work is the everi green joke of the man Gun, who having been charged by a judge for tale-bearing, was desired to give a good report'in future. How often do we find the circumstantial story of a man that gave his friend some old wine in a small glass, and was told that it was very little of its age; now Athenseus tells this of both Phryn* and Gnathsena. Small glasses have always been obnoxious to large drinkers; thus Captain Robert Bacon, grandson of Sir Nicholas Bacon, told a friend who (jave him some wine in a small glass to tie a long string to it, for he expected to swallow it some day. An anecdote of Edmund Kean forms a companion-picture to the above. The manager of a Scotch theatre where Keen was playing Macbeth, offered him some whiskey in a very small glass. "Take that, Mr. Kean, it is the real mountain dew that will never hurt you, sir." "No," said Kean, "that I'll be sworn it wouldn't —if it were vitriol." These old jokes with new faces corroborate the saying that nothing is so new as that which is forgotten. Lord Lyndhurst used to say of Lord Campbell when he wrote his " Lives of the Chancellors," that he added a new pain to death. The original of this witticism can be traced to Dr. Arbuthnot, who styled the infamous publisher Curll one of the new terrors of death. Cicero classes Pompey among those who are tui amantes sine rivali, and we often hear the same turn of expression used to describe some vain man. Mr. Raikes, in his Diary, cites a bon mot applied to a great coxcomb, who was said to be "le plus heureux des homines; il est fort amonreux de lui-meme et n'a point de rivaux." Rogers relates that when Person was told that Dr. Prettyman had been left a large estate by Mr. Tomline, who had only seen him once, he said, "It would not have happened if he had seen him twice." Porson apparently borrowed his idea from the old epigram : —

"I owe, says Meteus, much to Colon's care — Once only seen, he obose me for his heir. True, Meteus, hence your fortunes take their

rue, His heir you were not had he seen you twice."

Peter Pindar gave new point to an old jest when he said, that if he had not been a good subject to the King, his Majesty had been a good subject to him. Scaliger tells of a prood man who, having quarrelled with the Queen of Navarre, was ordered to quit her kingdom immediately, and replied, " That I can do in a very short time." This has given rise to the following modern version. A prince of Italy, whose dominion was of small extent, ordered a person out of it in twenty-four hours. "The Prince has been liberal, for I can quit it in half an hour," answered the banished man.

Wit is sometimes involuntary, and amusing anecdotes often gain their point from

the nalvel^ of those to whom they relate. Sir Walter Scott tells how he was at a country sale, and bought an old piece for five and twenty guineas. This price much astonished an old wife, who was looking to buy something herself, and she cried out, "If the parritch pot gangs at that, what will the kail pot gang for?" An American minister was once preaching about heaven, and, to show the absurdity of Swedenborga ideas, drew a graphic picture of the Swedenborgian heaven, with its beautiful fields, fine horses, cows, and pretty women, when, in the midst of his glowing description, one of the sisters went into raptures, and shouted " Glory, glory, glory I" This so disconcerted the preacher that he paused, when an elder cried out to the snouter, "Hold on there, sister! you're shouting over the wrong heaven!"

It is thought by some to be an advantage for the teller of good stories to keep a solemn countenance himself; but Charles Lamb classes among his "Popular Fallacies'* this — that "a man must not laugh at his own jest," and says —

"We live to see a wag taste hia own joke to his party, to watoh a quirk, or a merry conceit, flickering upon the lips gome seconds before the tongue is delivered of it. If it be good, fresh and racy, bej-otten of the occasion; if he that utters it never thought it before, he is naturally the first to be tickled at it, and any suppression of such complacence we hold to be clownish and insulting."

Sydney Smith remarked that " the sense of the humorous is as incompatible with tenderness and respect as with compassion ;" but we cannot agree with him, for we believe that humour is usually goodnatured. Wit, however, often has the stinz as well as the honey of the bee; and of this kind there is satire, irony, sarcasm, and raillery.

"Satire should, like a polished razor keen, Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen."

I Or we find the same in an amplified 'form —

"True wit is like the brilliant stone
Dug from the Indian mine,
Which boasts two various powers in one,
To cut as well as ehine.
Genius, like this, if polished right
With the same gift abounds:
Appears at once both keen and bright,
And sparkles while it wounds."

One of the finest pieces of irony in the English language is the dedication of "Killing no Murder" to Oliver Cromwell,

« AnteriorContinuar »